Ritual is one of the key concepts in the sociology of religion. Emile Durkheim (1965) posited a relationship between ritual behavior and the adherence to social order, putting collective veneration of the sacred at the heart of his theory of social solidarity. Ritual, organized around sacred objects as its focal point and organized into cultic practice, was for Durkheim the fundamental source of the “collective conscience” that provides individuals with meaning and binds them into a community. Participation in rites integrates the individual into a social order both in one’s “day-to-day relationships of life” and in those celebrations of the collective “which bind [one] to the social entity as a whole.” Veneration of an object held to be sacred by a community is a powerful affirmation of collective conscience and a call to obey communally defined morality.
Durkheim argued that every religious group had three features: a system of beliefs that express the sacred and define the sacred and profane; a moral community (or “cult”), such as a clan, tribe, sect, synagogue, masjid, church, etc. that develops in concert with these beliefs and enforces the norms and rules of the believing society; and a set of collective behaviors, rituals. Rituals provide a focal point for emotional processes and generate symbols of group membership. They help people to experience a shared sense of exaltation and group transcendence. This feeling, which is only experienced through ritual veneration, is collective effervescence. The unique condition of ritual participation is that people systematically misunderstand the emotional energy they experience in the ritual process as having a supernatural origin. This misunderstanding thus confirms their religious beliefs and the exhilaration they experience leads them to return to their community to re-experience it through sacred rites.
Durkheim’s theory implies that (a) any object could become socially defined as sacred and (b) repeated veneration of sacred objects creates stable social relations. His theory of rituals provides a powerful social mechanism that reinforces group coherence and produces social solidarity, but he does not explain how social groups originate or how they change, dissolve, fracture, and so on. Innovations in social life – including the formation of new solidary groups – seem to occur only because of exogenous events, since, in Durkheim’s sense, rituals are merely forces for reproduction. From a functionalist perspective, social and cultural innovations, however rare, are quickly normalized and institutionalized through ritual practices.
Stark and Finke (2000) jettison the functionalism of Durkheim and focus exclusively on religious rituals, rather than all repeated social interactions, arguing that confidence in religious explanations increases with ritual participation. Rituals generally follow customs or traditions, but they are deliberate ceremonies in which the object is exchanged with a god or gods and the outcome is reinforcement of the “central ideas and ideals of the group.” Rituals are thus intentional features of religious life and can shift with alterations in either the demand or the supply of religious goods.
Rational-choice accounts argue that rituals are ubiquitous features of social life because they provide the common focal points and common cultural knowledge that provide actors with information about how others will act. This makes mutual assurance possible and helps actors solve the coordination problems that usually bedevil and obstruct effective collective action. Armed with common knowledge, actors can more credibly make commitments to one another and mutually orient their actions to one another, often without the need for organization (Chwe 2001). Cultural practices – such as rituals – that facilitate coordination develop and persist because they are, ultimately, efficient and enhance the productivity of social action. Not surprisingly, rituals are foundational to voluntary collective action, as is especially evident in religious groups.
According to Durkheim, “[A religious group] is not a simple group of ritual precautions which a man is held to take in certain circumstances; it is a system of diverse rites, festivals, and ceremonies which all have the characteristic that they reappear periodically. They fulfill the need which the believer feels of strengthening and affirming, at regular intervals of time, the bond which unites him to the sacred beings upon which he depends.” Rituals often venerate heroic forebears and bringers of salvation. “The hero is the symbol of a given society, the society’s progenitor in many cases and a sort of ideal summing up in one mythic individual of the chief characteristics of the various empirical members of the group” (Maus, Hubert, and Hertz 2009). Neo-Durkheimians contend that ritual participation tends to “open up the space for community or for collective identity in its most elementary form” and link present to past in rituals understood as “iterations of events” going forward into history (Giessen 2006). The cult helps to constitute moral boundaries, exclude strangers, provide access to goods and privileges, and define a sacred citizenship that operates across social distinctions status (Maus, Hubert, and Hertz 2009). Yet this need not imply that integration occurs without conflict, as struggles frequently occur among the adherents of the cult for their position in it, their rival interpretations of the core beliefs and myths, and its relevance and importance to the challenges they face.
Neo-Durkheimian theorists of the ritual process insist that the theory of rituals must endogenize change (e.g., through the study of failed rituals and creation of new sacred objects) and specify circumstances under which rituals fail to produce collective emotions or the focus of rituals gets redirected to a new object. Randall Collins has proposed a bold theoretical synthesis that builds upon Durkheim’s theory of moral integration through ritual and Goffman’s situational analysis. In Interaction Ritual Chains (2004), Collins contends that rituals are powerful because they instigate social interaction based on bodily co-presence and mutual emotional attunement. When engaged in rituals, individuals feel solidarity with one another and imagine themselves to be members of a common undertaking; they become infused with emotional energy and exhilaration; they establish and reinforce collective symbols, moral representations of the group that ought to be defended and reinforced; and they react angrily to insults toward or the profanation of these symbols. Yet this is not a functional account of social order; drawing on Goffman, Collins shows how actors are obliged to perform in chains of ritual encounters which they can attempt to manipulate but which may also fail to produce emotional energy and attachment. In analyzing a diverse range of social behaviors from the veneration of the 9-11 “ground zero” site, to the enactment of social status differences, to drug consumption, to sexual intercourse, Collins observes similar features of common emotional entrainment, the production of symbolic focal objects that become invested with the emotional energy of ritual participants, and the continuation or transformation of social relations as rituals either link performances into chains of interaction into the future or produce dissonant emotions that lead social relations to decay.
Ritual participation does not always perpetuate social order. For instance, growing self-consciousness is deadly to ritual participation and its fundamentally spontaneous, emotional character (Giessen 2006). Collins observes that formal rituals sometimes fail, or decay over time, such that they produce “little or no feeling of group solidarity; no sense of one’s identity affirmed or changed; no respect for the group’s symbols; no heightened emotional energy”. The decay of rituals provokes a sense of stale ceremonialism, inappropriateness, or even “strong abhorrence.” When rituals feel imposed, rather than spontaneously joined, they usually provoke resentment and disgust. The rejection of imposed rituals and the destruction of symbols associated with them seem to be typical elements in the collapse of social orders, a violent reaction to “a kind of formality that one wishes never to go through again.”
Ritual remains one of the most important concepts not just in the sociology of religion but in sociology more broadly. Varying theoretical formulations focus on solidarity and integration, on the confidence in beliefs, and the generation of common knowledge that facilitates collective action. Each is the foundation of a contemporary research program in the sociology of religion.